Thank You “Otter”

RevisedI recently read this Amazon review of my Was America Founded as a Christian Nation”: A Historical IntroductionIt is written by someone who goes by the name “Otter.” He or she titled the review “Equal Opportunity Disorientation.” I have no idea who this is, but I think “Otter” captures well what I was trying to do in this book:

If you’re anxious to score debating points in the debate about whether America was founded as a Christian nation, avoid this masterful book.

If you want to appreciate the complexity of the issue, and if you prefer the truth to zinging your opponents, this is your one-stop shop.

With terrific scholarship, Fea makes sure that neither side of the debate comes out without rethinking itself.

Most helpfully, Fea surveys the abuse of the historical evidence by those who would seek to either return America to its “Christian roots” or to minimize America’s religious heritage. The book aims at a thorough and meticulous understanding of America’s relationship with religion, especially in the Colonial and Revolutionary periods: what did the early European-Americans think about religion and the state? What did they see as religion’s relationship to Revolution, or to civil law? What’s the best understanding between religious rhetoric and institutional commitments? Fea draws on a wide range of sources to paint a picture of enormous depth and complexity.

Secularists will be satisfied to learn that Fea, an evangelical, is by no means convinced by Dominionist arguments; evangelicals will be delighted to know that Fea refuses the axiom that religion in early America was an accidental and unimportant feature of the 18th century, irrelevant to our understanding of the past. Neither side will be entirely happy to find that he calls them to a higher level of discussion than is usual.

For those who read Fea, this whole thing is going to take a lot more work.

Thanks!

“In God We Trust”

In-God-We-Trust

Temple University professor David Mislin, author of Saving Faith: Making Religious Pluralism an American Value at the Dawn of a Secular Age, offers a short history of the phrase “In God We Trust,” in the wake of Donald Trump’s recent State of the Union address.  Here is a taste of his piece at The Conversation:

In his first State of the Union address President Donald Trump sought to link religion with American identity.

“Together, we are rediscovering the American way. In America, we know that faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, are the center of the American life. The motto is ‘In God We Trust,’” Trump declared.

But the history of “In God We Trust” is more complex than Trump’s assertion suggests.

That phrase, and similar invocations of God in national life, are relatively recent additions to America’s political language. From my perspective as a religious history scholar they reflect a particular view of the United States, not a universally accepted “American way.”

Read the rest here.

“Passion of the Christ” Sequel to Feature Jesus Helping Founding Fathers Establish America

Passion

The Babylon Bee continues to deliver the satire.  A taste:

HOLLYWOOD, CA—According to industry sources, director Mel Gibson’s highly anticipated sequel to The Passion of the Christ will center around the resurrected Jesus traveling to the Western Hemisphere to help the Founding Fathers establish the United States of America—God’s chosen nation.

Read the rest here.

Understanding David Barton’s Political Influence

723d3-barton

Check out Tara Isabella Burton‘s excellent piece on David Barton: “Understanding the fake historian behind America’s religious right.”  I am glad Burton found The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog useful in her research.

Here is a taste:

Barton is still cited as an expert by a number of GOP lawmakers. Another is Rick Saccone, the Pennsylvania Republican congressional candidate running in a special election to replace Tim Murphy, who resigned following allegations of an extramarital affair and asking a woman he was involved with to have an abortion.

Saccone’s tacit endorsement of Barton — he chose Barton to introduce him at a rally in early 2017, signaling Saccone’s wider political and religious views — should come as no surprise to those who have been following his career in politics. Saccone’s rhetoric as both a state lawmaker and on the campaign trail centers around Bartonian ideas of America as a foundationally Christian nation.

His own book, God in Our Government, seems straight out of the Barton playbook, arguing, as Barton does, that secularists have conspired to obfuscate the Christian history of the United States. Historian John Fea, a longtime critic of Christian nationalism, refers to Saccone on his blog as “one of Pennsylvania’s biggest David Barton supporters….”

The founders double as hero-saints to Barton. Central to the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation is the idea that America was founded unproblematically; that only a return to this mythologized past will somehow solve perceived problems of structural inequality. “Real” America, in other words, is above criticism.

Of course, it’s worth saying that all accounts of history — left-wing or right-wing, secular or Christian — can also be, in a sense, a form of propaganda. Any narrative of America’s foundation will, of course, be mediated by the specific biases and concerns of the teller. (Historian Fea does a great job pointing out that the secular counterpart to the Barton narrative, that all founding fathers were non-Christian, deist secularists, is also wrong).

Read the entire piece here.

Christian Nationalists Making the Usual Mistakes About American History

Perkins

Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, was not very happy with Paul Rosenberg and Frederick Clarkson’s recent Salon article on Religious Freedom Day.  He writes:

When Americans celebrate Religious Freedom Day tomorrow, not everyone will be happy about it. Liberals are already blasting the tradition that honors the 1786 signing of one of the most influential documents in American history: the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. Now, more than 230 years into the tradition that sparked a revolution, the Left is ready to recast history.

In Salon, hardly the bastion of conservative thought, Paul Rosenberg tries to persuade readers that freedom is the oppression, insisting that when Christians talk about religious liberty, it’s really just code for “theocratic supremacism of their own religious beliefs inscribed in government.” Taking aim at FRC in particular, Rosenberg points to Frederick Clarkson, who insists that our Church Ministries team has been “empowered to advance a dangerous suite of theocratic and persecutory policies” (while producing absolutely zero evidence to the effect). Instead, he talks suspiciously about our Culture Impact Teams (CITs), our network of on-the-ground activists in churches across America. Operating under the authority of the church’s leadership, CITs serve as the command center for a church’s efforts to engage the culture.

Then he starts to play fast and loose with the Constitution.  He quotes Rosenberg: “I think if we got serious about taking Jefferson and Madison’s foundational ideas of religious equality under the law into the 21stcentury, Christian nationalism would crumble.”  And then Perkins adds: “Our own Constitution closes with the words, ‘In the year of our Lord, 1787.’ That’s a reference to Jesus! The signers not only embraced Christianity, they anchored our most important document in it.”

OK.  I have written about this before.  First, the Constitution says “year of our Lord.”  It does not say anything about Jesus.  Second, this phrase hardly serves as an “anchor” of the Constitution.  Third, “In the year of our Lord” was a standard eighteenth-century way of referencing the date.  We need to be careful about giving it too much theological meeting.  Fourth, it is worth noting that an appeal to God does tell us something about the eighteenth-century world that the founders inhabited.  We don’t sign documents like this today.  Fifth, because the phrase “In the year of our Lord” is boilerplate, it was probably not added until after the delegates had left Philadelphia.  Sixth, the minutes of the Constitutional Convention reveal that there was no discussion about the phrase “In the year of our Lord.”  In other words, NO ONE said anything like: “Let’s end the document with the phrase ‘In the year of our Lord’ because it will send a message to everyone that we are creating a Christian nation.”

Perkins is correct when he says that Jefferson included the writing of the Virginia Statue of Religious Freedom on his tombstone.  Jefferson was a champion of religious freedom.  He believed that everyone had the right to worship God freely without government interference.  Jefferson did not comment on whether or not it was appropriate to have a Ten Commandments display in a courthouse or a prayer before a football game.  It is very difficult to appeal to his writings (or the writings of James Madison) to argue for or against such things.

Perkins writes: “Before President Trump, Jefferson would barely recognize his country.”  Really?  Jefferson lived in a different era, but he would certainly be able to spot Christian nationalists like Perkins.  He did battle against them in his own day (Christian Federalists) and would probably do battle with them today.  Jefferson regularly slammed pious New Englanders and their Christian political establishments.  He worried that they were trying to create a Christian nation, not a nation informed by religious liberty.

I have mixed feelings about this whole religious liberty debate:

  1. When Christian Right evangelicals talk about religious liberty they use this idea in a negative way–to protect themselves and their views.  In other words, they are rarely interested in articulating a positive view of religious liberty that defends the right of all people to worship freely.
  2. There are real religious liberty issues at stake in our country right now.  Will Christian institutions who uphold traditional views of marriage, for example, remain in a position to receive government funds or maintain a tax-exempt status?  I wrote about this yesterday.

On the one hand, people like Rosenberg and Clarkson need to offer a vision of religious liberty that protects the rights of churches, Christian schools, and other Christian institutions to practice their faith in the way they see fit, even in areas of sexual politics.  Frankly, I think Hillary Clinton’s failure to defend religious liberty in this way may have, among other things, cost her the election in 2016.

On the other hand, Christian Right activists like Perkins need to stop manipulating history.  When it comes to Jefferson, Perkins could probably learn a great deal from what David Barton went through when he published The Jefferson Lies.  In the end, if Perkins believes in liberty then he cannot, at the same time, defend the idea that the government should privilege one form of religious belief over another.

 

Is Trump Going to Western PA to Stump for Rick Saccone? Who is Rick Saccone?

The POTUS wrote this tweet about today’s trip to Western Pennsylvania.  But the White House says something different.

So who is Rick Saccone? He is a Pennsylvania state representative who is running in a special election for a seat in Congress.  This is the seat that opened after pro-life Republican Tim Murphy resigned in October 2017 after it was revealed he had asked his mistress to have abortion.

Early last year Saccone announced that he was running for a U.S. Senate seat.  Now he is running for Congress.

As we reported back in February 2017, Saccone is one of Pennsylvania’s biggest David Barton supporters.  He is a Christian nationalist with a Ph.D in public and international affairs from the University of Pittsburgh and a former professor at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.  In 2013, he published God in our Government.

He also loves Donald Trump:

Frankly, when Donald Trump won the GOP nomination, I thought Christian nationalist rhetoric would decline.  It has not.

Here are some tweets:

Lutherans allowing a politician to speak in church?

A Christian Nation or a Nation of Liberty? (You Can’t Have it Both Ways)

More from Glenn Tinder:

When Christians accept liberty they accept the possibility–a possibility that is almost certain to become a reality–of a world unformed and ungoverned by faith.  The natural inclination of faith is to build a sacred order–to reconstruct the world in its own image.  In granting liberty, it abandons that spontaneous project  It acquiesces in secularism–life unrelated to God and unstructured by faith.  Acknowledging the right of human beings to be free, it allows for a repudiation of faith…Granting liberty is making way for sin.

The Political Meaning of Christianity, p. 102.

ADDENDUM:  Several readers who are not familiar with my work here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home seem to think that Tinder is arguing on behalf of a Christian nation.  Actually, Tinder is arguing for liberty rooted in the human dignity of all human beings and, as a result, a kind of pluralism.

Here is more context:

…when Christians commit themselves to liberty there follows an enormous complication of Christian morality; they deliberately refrain, in some measure, from resisting evil.  They allow the tares to grow with the wheat.

Gerson: Roy Moore Embraces the “Shabby, Third-Rate Gospel of Stephen K. Bannon”

MooreIn his most recent column, Michael Gerson, the conservative evangelical columnist at The Washington Post, explains the Christian nationalism of Judge Roy Moore:

But Moore represents a peculiar challenge to the GOP future. He holds to a particularly rigorous vision of a Christian America, ultimately ruled and legitimated by “biblical law.” In his conception, the freedom of “religion” in the First Amendment is limited to the Christian (and presumably Jewish) version of the creator God. So the protections of the Constitution do not extend to, say, Buddhism and Islam. “Buddha didn’t create us,” explains Moore. “Muhammad didn’t create us. It’s the God of the Holy Scriptures.”

The absurdity of this claim is just stunning. Moore is contending that when the First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” the document was actually intending to establish a religion. This indicates a type of zealotry willing to call night day and day night.

Stunning indeed.  I need to do some checking, but I think Moore’s position is an even more consistent Christian nationalism than the stuff peddled by David Barton.

Gerson argues that Moore is less theonomist and more Bannonist:

It is easy to imagine Moore sleeplessly considering American decadence, because his version of biblical law is ceaselessly violated. It is worth asking: What is his limiting principle in enforcing the voice of Heaven? The Ten Commandments set aside the Sabbath for rest. Should that be mandated? How about Old Testament recommendations of the death penalty for adulterers, apostates, blasphemers and incorrigible children? Why not enforce the Apostle Paul’s admonition against “foolish talk”? But that would leave Moore speechless.

No, Moore is not really a theonomist. The boundaries of his worldview, it turns out, almost exactly coincide with those of the Breitbart agenda. Moore’s study of divine law has led him, in the end, to the shabby, third-rate gospel of Stephen K. Bannon.

Read the rest here.  I also wonder how much longer we should call Gerson an “evangelical” or a “conservative.”

Public History and the Church (or why I do what I do)

Why Study History CoverIn the last few days, several folks have asked me why I get so “bent out of shape” about the likes of David Barton and the “court evangelicals.”  One noted American religious historian regularly implies on Twitter and in blog comments that I am “obsessed” with Trump.

I get so “bent out of shape” because I believe that part of my vocation as a historian is to bring good United States history to the church–both to the local church and the larger American church.  (And especially to evangelicalism, since that is my tribe).  I wrote about this extensively in the Epilogue of Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  When I speak at churches–and I do this often–I see it as a form of public history.

My critique of the court evangelicals is a natural extension of my ongoing criticism of conservative activist Barton and other Christian nationalist purveyors of the past.  It is not a coincidence that First Baptist-Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress often preaches a sermon titled “America is a Christian Nation.”  In this sermon he says. among other things:

We don’t restrict people’s right to worship [they can] worship however they choose to worship.  But that doesn’t mean we treat all religions equally.  This is a Christian nation. Every other religion is an impostor, it is an infidelity.  That is what the United States Supreme Court said.

Someone can correct me, but I think First Baptist–Dallas is the largest Southern Baptist church in the world.  Jeffress is an influential figure.  He goes on Fox News and claims to represent American evangelicals.  His profile has risen immensely since he announced his support of Trump.

It’s important to remember that Jeffress’s political theology (if you can call it that) is based on a false view of American history.  And it is not very difficult to trace it to the teachings of Barton.

In the aforementioned sermon, Jeffress comments on a recent Barton visit to First Baptist–Dallas.  He then says, referencing the prince of Aledo, Texas, that “52 of the 55 signers of the Constitution” were “evangelical believers.” This is problematic on so many levels.  First, only 39 people signed the Constitution.  Actually, I think Jeffress might be referring here to the men who signed the Declaration of Independence.  Second, to suggest that most of them were “evangelicalRevised believers” is a blatant misrepresentation of history.  In fact, Jeffress doesn’t even get Barton right here.  Barton says (wrongly) that nearly all of the signers of the Declaration had Bible school and seminary degrees.  Jeffress is confused about his fake history. 🙂  But that doesn’t matter.  People in his massive congregation applaud and cheer when he preaches this stuff.

Jeffress and the court evangelicals support Trump because they want to “make America great again.”  Jeffress’s congregation even sings a song about it.  Let’s remember that “Make America Great Again” is a historical claim.  The nation is “great,” Christian nationalists like Jeffress argue, when it upholds the Christian beliefs on which it was founded.  Christian Right politics, the same politics that carry a great deal of weight in today’s GOP, thus starts with this dubious claim about the American founding. From there it can go in all sorts of directions related to immigration, race, church and state, marriage, abortion, religious liberty, etc….

My approach to critiquing Jeffress, the Christian Right, and the court evangelicals is structural in nature. It is fitting with my vocation as a historian.  Theologians and pastors are probably better equipped to make a direct biblical case for why Jeffress’s Christian nationalism is idolatry and harmful to the witness of the Gospel. Greg Boyd, Richard, Hughes, John Wilsey, and others have already made such a case. I encourage you to read their books.  But early American historians are best equipped at taking a sledgehammer to the foundation of Christian nationalist politics.

So yes, I do get “bent out of shape.”  Maybe I am obsessed.  Somebody has to be.  We need good American history more than ever. Christian historians have a public role to play in such a time as this.

 

More on David Barton’s Use of That John Adams Quote

Barton Quote

Yesterday we did a lengthy post showing how Christian Right activist David Barton manipulated a John Adams quote to make it sound like Adams supported the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation.

Barton is up to his old tricks here.  He is being deliberately deceptive. He seems to have no problem manipulating the past in this way to promote his agenda.

After I published my post, Southern Methodist University historian Kate Carte Engel took to twitter to give her take on Adams, Christianity, and the American founding.

Here it is:

David Barton Can’t Let Go Of This John Adams Quote

This appeared on Barton’s Facebook page today:

Barton Quote

Sounds pretty good if your a Christian nationalist.  But let’s take a deeper look at this quote.

I have excerpted the pertinent parts of the letter below.  Warren Throckmorton, who wrote about this letter yesterday on his blog, has highlighted those passages that Barton quotes in the above meme.

Who composed that army of fine young fellows that was then before my eyes? There were among them Roman Catholics, English Episcopalians, Scotch and American Presbyterians, Methodists, Moravians, Anabaptists, German Lutherans, German Calvinists, Universalists, Arians, Priestleyans, Socinians, Independents, Congregationalists, Horse Protestants, and House Protestants, Deists and Atheists, and Protestants “qui ne croyent rien.”* Very few, however, of several of these species; nevertheless, all educated in the general principles of Christianity, and the general principles of English and American liberty.

Could my answer be understood by any candid reader or hearer, to recommend to all the others the general principles, institutions, or systems of education of the Roman Catholics, or those of the Quakers, or those of the Presbyterians, or those of the Methodists, or those of the Moravians, or those of the Universalists, or those of the Philosophers? No. 

The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence, were the only principles in which that beautiful assembly of young men could unite, and these principles only could be intended by them in their address, or by me in my answer. And what were these general principles? I answer, the general principles of Christianity, in which all those sects were united, and the general principles of English and American liberty, in which all those young men united, and which had united all parties in America, in majorities sufficient to assert and maintain her independence. 

Now I will avow, that I then believed and now believe that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God; and that those principles of liberty are as unalterable as human nature and our terrestrial, mundane system. I could, therefore, safely say, consistently with all my then and present information, that I believed they would never make discoveries in contradiction to these general principles. In favor of these general principles, in philosophy, religion, and government, I could fill sheets of quotations from Frederic of Prussia, from Hume, Gibbon, Bolingbroke, Rousseau, and Voltaire, as well as Newton and Locke; not to mention thousands of divines and philosophers of inferior fame.

A few comments:

  1. This is a letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson dated 28 June 1813. I do not own this document. I read it at Founders Online, a National Archives database of the writings of the Founding Fathers.  Don’t be fooled by David Barton when he tells you that he has some special insight into the nation’s founding because he owns original documents.  Most of what he owns is accessible to anyone via this database. I found the document in less than a minute.  You can too.  I encourage you to match Barton’s selective use of quotes with the actual documents in the database.
  2. Barton is always complaining that so-called “liberal” historians use ellipses to leave out parts of documents that mention God or religion.  Notice the quote in the above meme.  Then read the actual letter.  It seems to me that the material left out by Barton’s ellipses goes a long way toward helping us understand what John Adams really meant here.  It looks like “liberal” historians are not the only ones who have this problem.
  3.  In the first paragraph, Adams is describing the religious affiliations of the men present at the Continental Congress.  Notice that the list includes “deists” and “atheists” along with more traditional Christian denominations.
  4.  In the second and third paragraphs, Adams notes that the group who met in Philadelphia was so religiously diverse that the only ideas holding them together were the “general principles of Christianity.”  What does he mean by this phrase?  It is hard to tell at first glance.  But if there were indeed “deists” and “atheists” in the room, these “general principles” must have been understood by Adams as a system of belief that was far less orthodox than the Christianity of the ancient creeds.  An “atheist” might be able to find common ground around a Christian moral code (say, for example, the Sermon on the Mount), but could not affirm the existence of God. A “deist” would have rejected the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and, in some cases, God’s providence in human affairs, but he could certainly unite behind a moral code based on the teachings of Jesus. (I titled my chapter on the highly unorthodox Thomas Jefferson, “Thomas Jefferson: Follower of Jesus”). So let’s return to our original question.  What did Adams mean when he said the Continental Congress was held together by “the general principles of Christianity?” If we take the beliefs of the “atheists” and the “deists” (and, I might add, the “universalists, “Socinians,” and “Preistleyans”)  seriously, the “general principles of Christianity” was a phrase Adams used to describe a very vague moral code that all of these men–the orthodox and the unorthodox–could affirm.
  5. The third paragraph also affirms that these men were united by the “general principles of English and American liberty.”  This tells us that in addition to some very basic moral principles compatible with the ethical teachings of Christianity, the founders shared a common belief in liberty.  This should not surprise anyone.  A belief in liberty was part of their English heritage.  No English heritage of liberty, no American Revolution.  As I tell my classes, the English taught the colonists how to rebel.
  6. The fourth paragraph tells us that Adams believes that these “general principles” of Christianity and liberty could be easily affirmed by a host of secular writers, including Hume and Voltaire, two of the Enlightenment’s staunchest critics of organized Christianity. These “general principles of Christianity” must have been pretty watered-down if Hume and Voltaire could affirm them.  Again, the reference here is to a vague morality, not the particular teachings of orthodox Christianity.

In the end, if we look at the parts of the letter Barton does not mention in his meme we would get a very different view of the role of Christianity in the American founding than the Christian nationalist message he wants to convey to his Facebook followers.  This is cherry-picking at its finest.

(Thanks to Warren Throckmorton for the inspiration to write this post).

Today’s Religion News Service Commentary: “Kentucky’s shrewd move to promote a Christian nationalist agenda”

Kentucky.  Map courtesy of Creative Commons

Regular readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home will be familiar with a longer version of this piece.

Here is a taste of a shorter version syndicated today through Religion News Service:

(RNS) Matt Bevin, the governor of Kentucky, recently signed House Bill 128 requiring the state Board of Education to establish an elective social studies course on the Old and New Testaments.

Kentucky lawmakers believe a course will “provide to students knowledge of biblical content, character, poetry, and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding contemporary society and culture, including literature, art, music, mores, oratory, and public policy.”

Bible courses in public schools are perfectly constitutional. In 1963, the Supreme Court ruled in Abington v. Schempp that mandatory reading of the Bible in public schools as an act of religious practice or devotion was unconstitutional.

But what many fail to recognize is that Abington v. Schempp did not completely remove the Bible from schools. Consider Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark’s majority opinion:

“It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without the study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its religious and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistent with the First Amendment.”

If Kentucky has every constitutional right to hold “objective,” content-oriented Bible courses, why was it necessary to pass HB 128?

The passing of this law has little to do with the United States Constitution. It has everything to do with politics.

Parts of HB 128 should raise red flags. The wording suggests that the course should move beyond the study of the Bible in its ancient context. It requires educators to apply the Bible’s teaching to current events and assumes that the Bible informs virtually every area of American culture.

Read the rest here.

Politicians and “Christian America”

Christian_Flag_etc_Covenant_Presbyterian_Long_Beach_20050213

Check out Sam Haselby‘s 4th of July post at The Washington Post: “What politicians means when they say the United States was founded as a Christian nation?

Here is a taste:

…today’s debate is rather stark, with Christian nationalists such as Pence and Sessions, or Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), committed to an evangelical Protestant vision that comes down to little more than pro-life politics, home schooling and rote patriotism. Anti-religious liberals, such as comedian Bill Maher, on the other hand, don’t know much about religion at all.

Why has such a vibrant debate dimmed to a litany of talking points? Partially, the answer is that American Christianity has changed. But more important, rather than a historical disagreement or a philosophical one, today’s argument about whether America was founded as a Christian nation is a political one. Arguing whether the United States was founded as a Christian nation is usually just a coded way of asserting about what kind of nation we want America to be. That’s a discussion worth havingand having it directly, without bad historical justifications — an endeavor America’s Founders could have respected.

It’s a nice piece.  I encourage you to read Haselby’s The Origins of American Religious Nationalism.

Haselby’s piece reflects a position I have been arguing here and elsewhere for close to a Reviseddecade and it drives home some of the fundamental questions and issues I have raised in both Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction and Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  (And our current #ChristianAmerica tweetstorm!)

On Sasse:  I have never heard him speak about Christian nationalism, but I have a hard time believing he accepts that view.  It is possible to be conservative and reject the idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.  In fact, some of the best stuff written on the subject has come from folks in this camp.

A Contrarian’s View of Patriotic Worship Services

Jeffress 2

Did your church have a patriotic worship service yesterday?

I know a lot of churches will pause to give thanks for their country or acknowledge veterans on the 4th of July weekend.  I am not a fan of this, but I accept it as part and parcel of the American Christian experience.  Anything that goes beyond this kind of brief patriotic pause gets dangerously close to idolatry.  Fireworks and flag-waving are not brief patriotic pauses.

If the response to my recent First Baptist–Dallas post is any indication, it looks like a lot of Christians agree with me.

On the other hand, if what I watched on Saturday night at The Kennedy Center is any indication, it looks like a lot Christians do not agree with me.

I appreciate the perspective of Stephanie Wheatley (aka “Dr. Crazy Cat Lady“), a religion professor at Oklahoma State.  Here is a taste of her recent post “Why I Don’t Do ‘Patriotic’ Worship Services“:

We still see vestiges of this historical mixing of religion and civil religion throughout our places of worship, however.  Many churches have an American flag at the front of the sanctuary along with the Christian flag (and woe betide any minister who attempts to remove said American flag).  Churches offer patriotic-themed worship around Memorial Day and the 4th of July.  My theological problems with this are two-fold: first, if Pentecost taught us anything, it’s that the message of Christ is available to everyone, everywhere, of every language, tribe, and nation.  To plant our flag (literally and metaphorically) on the mountain of American Christianity does a disservice to that message.  Second, idolatry becomes a real problem.  Wrapping Jesus in an American flag often bastardizes the message of Christianity and sets up the flag, the country, and the leaders of the country as objects of devotion at best, worship at worst. 

Don’t believe me?  Allow me to share what Robert Jeffress, one of the “court evangelicals” as John Fea calls them, has been up to lately.  Last Sunday, his church (First Baptist) in Dallas hosted “Freedom Sunday.”  I’m not sure exactly what was being worshipped, but I don’t think it was the risen Christ.  Yesterday, he and his merry band commandeered the Kennedy Center for an uber-patriotic celebration of the July 4 holiday that included—no kidding—the First Baptist Church-Dallas choir singing a song called “Make America Great Again.”  While this is obviously the marriage of God and country taken to an extreme conclusion, it is not abnormal.  In fact, according to a survey done by Lifeway, the Southern Baptist Convention’s research outfit, 53% of Protestant pastors said they think that their congregations sometimes seem to love America more than God.  Love or devotion to something other than the Almighty is the very definition of idolatry.

Is it any wonder, then, that someone who has studied the American civil religion would be squeamish about it?  The sociological implications of the civil religion are equally difficult to stomach.  It is often weaponized against those who don’t follow the party line (like politically incorrect patriots).  This has been seen as recently as last fall when Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the National Anthem before San Francisco 49er games as a protest against the state of race relations in this country drew outrage from all over.  In fact, it may have killed his football career, proving that violating the civil religion is more injurious to a public figure than domestic violence or other criminal activity.  Furthermore, minorities in general have been left out of the civil religion.  Richard Hughes’ book Myths America Lives By lays out the various myths that have informed the civil religion as well as Black critiques of those myths.  Such critiques are easy to find because the civil religion is so often blind to its own faults.

Read the entire post here.

This Video Proves Why Robert Jeffress is the Court Evangelical of All Court Evangelicals

Watch it if you can stomach it.  The court evangelicals were out in force at the Kennedy Center last night.  Paula White was also there.

In just under 6 minutes:

  • Jeffress claimed that “our nation was founded on a love for God and a reverence for His word.”  Is this correct?  I am wrestling with this question all weekend @johnfea1 and at #ChristianAmerica?. We are posting every 30 minutes during Fourth of July weekend.  Or you can just go get a copy of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.  This Christian nation stuff never goes away.  Christians (the followers of David Barton and his ilk will not listen to non-Christians) need to offer an alternative narrative to this way of thinking about American history.  We are here, but we don’t have the resources or the funding.
  • Jeffress dabbles here in American exceptionalism.  He sounds like a 17th-century Puritan delivering a jeremiad calling the new Israel back to its spiritual roots. Jeffress asks “Has God removed his hand of blessing from us?” Earlier today someone on Twitter reminded me of a 2012 statement from Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals.  He was writing about the idea that the United States is a Christian or chosen nation.  Anderson said “The Bible only uses the word ‘Christian’ to describe people and not countries.”
  • Jeffress suggests that Donald Trump is a messianic figure who God raised up to save Christian America from despair.  He says, “but in the midst of that despair came November the 8th, 2016 (wild applause) and that day represented the greatest political upset in American history.  Because it was on that day, November the 8th, that God declared that the people, not the pollsters, were going to choose the next President of the United States.  And they chose Donald Trump” (more wild applause).  I think November 8, 2016 just became part of the Christian calendar at First Baptist Church–Dallas.
  • Jeffress reminds us that 81% of evangelicals voted for Trump.  He says they “understood that [Trump] alone had the leadership skills necessary to reverse the downward death spiral our nation was in” (wild applause). Jeffress claims that people are more excited now about Trump than they were on election day because Trump “has exceeded our every expectation.” OK.  Those expectations must be pretty low. (By the way, I am still waiting for Jeffress and the other Court Evangelicals to condemn the Morning Joe tweets).
  • Jeffress claims that Trump has done more to protect religious liberty than any POTUS in U.S. history. Really?  More than Jefferson?  More than Madison?
  • Jeffress says that “millions of Americans believe that the election of President Trump represented God giving us another chance, perhaps our last chance, to truly make America Great Again.”  Apparently God wants to give us another chance to return to the 1950s or the 1980s.

Trump’s speeches to evangelicals are always the same.  They are getting old. I am pretty sure his speech writers have exhausted everything they know about evangelicals. But why should they think more deeply about faith and public life when they can just have Trump throw out catchphrases and talking points about religious liberty or “the wall” or ISIS and have the crowd go wild.

Trump railed against the fake media and gets rousing cheers from an audience that I assume was made up of parishioners of First Baptist Church in Dallas.  I am inclined to give this cheering a pass because it is not occurring on a Sunday morning in a church sanctuary, but it is still disturbing to watch my fellow evangelical Christians put their hope in a strongman and do so with such zeal.  For example, when Trump says that “in America we do not worship government, we worship God,” the audience starts chanting “USA, USA, USA.” Something is wrong when a reference to the worship of God triggers nationalist chants.

A few final points:

Someone needs to tell Trump’s speechwriter that there was no public prayer at the Constitutional Convention.  Ben Franklin suggested it, but it did not happen.

And let’s also remember that his Executive Order on the Johnson Amendment accomplished nothing.  The Johnson Amendment is still in the tax code.  It can only be changed by Congress.

I remain part of the #19percent!

The Problem With Mixing Christianity and Nationalism

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Kyle Roberts is Schilling Professor of Public Theology and the Church and Economic Life at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities.  He explains, from the perspective of Christian teaching, some of the problems with what happened last Sunday at First Baptist Church in Dallas.  I am glad that a theologian has commented on this story.  As a historian, my level of analysis is limited.

According to Roberts, there are 10 “negative consequences” when a church conflates nationalism and Christianity.

  1. It contributes to false assumptions of God’s special blessing or privilege
  2. It confuses the power of God with the power of the State
  3. It confuses the gospel of grace with the “good news” of material wealth and security.
  4. It undermines the separation of church and state
  5. It undercuts the prophetic power that Christianity needs in order to be salt and light
  6. It makes us forget that nation-states are a recent development
  7. It undermines the cross
  8. It replaces transcendence with immanence
  9. It disrespects those who have been marginalized by the configuration of powers in the nation-state
  10. It suggests that the basis of Christian hope is not the counter-cultural Messiah, but the “worldly” powers of the State.

Click here to see how Roberts develops each of these points at his blog Unsystematic Theology.  Great stuff.

Defending Religious Liberty is Good for Business. Just Ask Jay Sekulow.

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If what I am reading about Jay Sekulow is true, it tells us a lot about the Christian Right’s crusade for religious liberty.  Sekulow is a lawyer, talk show host, and chief counsel for the American Center for Law & Justice (ACLJ).

ACLJ was founded by Pat Roberson in 1990 at Regent University School of Law for the purpose of defending a conservative view of the United States Constitution.  Today the ACLJ is associated with Sekulow, a graduate of Regent Law School.

Back in 2005, the Legal Times described Sekulow as “the leading Supreme Court advocate of the Christian Right.”  This role apparently makes him a lot of money.  According to the Legal Times he used over $2.3 million from a nonprofit he controlled to buy two homes and lease a private jet.  Here is a taste of that article:

Sekulow’s financial dealings deeply trouble some of the people who have worked for him, leading several to speak with Legal Times during the past six months about their concerns — before Sekulow assumed his high-profile role promoting President George W. Bush’s Supreme Court nominees. 

“Some of us truly believed God told us to serve Jay,” says one former employee, who requested anonymity out of fear of reprisal. “But not to help him live like Louis XIV. We are coming forward because we need to believe there is fairness in this world.” 

Another says: “Jay sends so many discordant signals. He talks about doing God’s work for his donors, and then he flies off in his plane to play golf.” 

Still another told Legal Times, “The cause was so good and so valid, but at some point you can’t sacrifice what is right for the sake of the cause.” 

Sekulow shrugs off the criticism and makes no apologies. “I wouldn’t pretend to tell you we don’t pay our lawyers well,” including himself, says Sekulow. “As a private lawyer, I could bill $750 an hour, but I don’t.” He does lease a jet, he says, and he does sometimes use it to reach the golf course — but with donors or vendors, he insists. “We’ve been doing this for 20 years and never had a blip” of financial irregularity. 

Nothing in the relatively loose regulations that govern nonprofits prohibits family members from serving on boards, drawing salaries, or spending money. But critics say the extravagant spending burns up money that Sekulow solicits from donors for legal causes. Citing the high cost of litigating Supreme Court cases, Sekulow wrote in a 2003 fund-raising letter, “We are asking God to prompt every member of the ACLJ to get involved personally in this effort.” He added later, “Please send a generous gift right away.” 

Read the rest here.

Fast-forward to 2017 and it appears that little has changed with Jay Sekulow.  He continues to use appeals to God to fund his efforts and, apparently, his lavish lifestyle. The only major difference between 2005 and 2017 is that he now serves as counsel to the President of the United States.

Want to know what Sekulow has been up to since the Legal Times piece?  Click here.  And here.

I don’t know if what Jay Sekulow is doing is legal or not.  What I am interested in is the way that the crusade for religious liberty in America is lining his pockets.  (I do not know if Sekulow embraces the views of the so-called Prosperity Gospel, but it would not surprise me if he did). Sekulow is a regular commentator on Fox News and has become a prominent and bombastic legal voice for the Christian Right.  He has done a great deal to convince conservative evangelicals that their religious freedom is being threatened. He appeals to the fears of his followers.  When Sekulow shows up, conservative evangelicals are comforted.  He has their back. He will fight for them. He will take their case all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary.

Sekulow’s star will continue to rise among the Court Evangelicals as long as there are more and more threats–real and imagined– to religious liberty.  And as long as there are threats to religious liberty, Sekulow can keep asking for money.  Hmm….

Below is a video of Sekulow in action.  Notice how he and Megyn Kelly root their understanding of religious liberty in the idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.